In his eloquent introduction, James Morrow, another writer of "moral fiction", deftly analyzes the major imperatives of the four works included in Blue Kansas Sky, focusing on two major themes, the inclusion and redemption of the "other." Although his insights add to one's enjoyment of the collection, they only touch briefly on another important facet of Bishop's work, the clash between his essential optimism, his generally hopeful attitude towards the world, and his seemingly reluctant acknowledgement that optimism alone does not suffice in the face of the hardships the world has to offer.
Optimism positively suffuses the title story, a Bildungsroman featuring one Sonny Peacock, a young man who comes to understand his place in the world through the almost shadowy presence in his life of his ex-con uncle, Rory Peacock. Although warned off by his mother, who blames Rory for her husband's death, Sonny is drawn to his uncle, who enters the story looking like an accident waiting to happen. That no "accident" occurs is testament to the human capacity for change; that Sonny learns so much about life from his neer do well uncle is both ironic and touching. Taut and intellectually satisfying, "Blue Kansas Sky" contains several uplifting messages about redemption and human nature. Yet, Sonny's essential optimism is in constant danger of being eroded, and the story's ending is a heartbreaker.
The story most like it in the collection is former Hugo finalist, "Cri de Cour," which examines the nature of bigotry and the power of the powerless. It is the tale of star traveler Abel Gwiazada, and his son Dean, who was born with Down's syndrome. For Abel and most of the crew, Dean is easily lovable, a veritable repository for the positive emotions for those one board. Yet, to crewman Kazimierz Mikol, he is a freak. Mikol's presence provokes much tension, and much exposition about the nature of parental choice in an age where gene technology may make conditions like Dean's obsolete. Even though Mikol grows to love and accept Dean as the others already do, the novella ends on mixed note, as the travelers are forced to deal with a disaster that nearly renders their long journey meaningless.
The remaining stories (both Nebula Award finalists) are far darker, dealing with the nature of prejudice and the power of obsession, describing two personal journeys into the very heart of darkness. "Apartheid, Superstrings, and Mordecai Thubana" is essentially a science fictional play on books like BLACK LIKE ME and Ralph Ellison's INVISIBLE MAN. The latter is especially pertinent, in that the main character, a white man, is rendered invisible, and thus given a special insight into the plight of the black man in South Africa. Even though it is obvious that the character has seen the light, his personal epiphany is essentially meaningless against a backdrop of institutionalized racism. "Death and Designation Among the Asadi" is also about a journey of understanding, but one which proves impossible to complete. Here, Bishop plays with the theory of the observed being acted on by the observer, but deftly turns the tables, as the observer is slowly driven mad by his inability to understand the alien race he studies. Seemingly about institutionalized alienation, it really is more about the arrogance of human beings in assuming their mindsets are universal.
So, we have optimism, but optimism tempered by reality. We see closed minds opening, but also minds that shut down when reality intrudes. True, Bishop is an optimist, but this doesn't prevent him from being simultaneously tough minded, intelligent, skeptical, and morally aware. The magic is in the careful balance he strikes in his writing, tempered by his fiction's two essential ingredients: his clear, strong, trustworthy voice, and the obvious compassion he feels for his creations.